Identity and the 'net: A blast from the past

I would have written this in response to the profgrrrl here, but I didn’t have enough space in Haloscan to respond, and then I remembered the article I was trying to grab on to in my head.

profgrrrl asks in part “To me, the “problematic” case, if there were to be such a thing, would be the pseudblog that hides its pseudonymity (pretends to be under a real name). Don’t know if those exist, but …” I don’t know either, though I suspect there’s at least one blogger out there who is trying to pass with a “real name,” and I’d bet that that person is an academic.

But the point is identity is always a big ol’ convoluted mess, only more so in electronic spaces like the web. One good explanation of this comes from this article I recall from way back when and which I actually found through a google search just now, Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?” This is a somewhat dated piece of course (published originally in 1991), but in it, Stone goes to great lengths to theorize the problems of identity in a very literal sense in cyberspace. Here’s an excellent example of what I mean:

Let us begin with a person I will call Julie, on a computer conference in New York in 1985. Julie was a totally disabled older woman, but she could push the keys of a computer with her headstick. The personality she projected into the “net”–the vast electronic web that links computers allover the world–was huge. On the net, Julie’s disability was invisible and irrelevant. Her standard greeting was a big, expansive “HI!!!!!!” Her heart was as big as her greeting, and in the intimate electronic companionships that can develop during on-line conferencing between people who may never physically meet, Julie’s women friends shared their deepest troubles, and she offered them advice–advice that changed their lives. Trapped inside her ruined body, Julie herself was sharp and perceptive, thoughtful and caring.

After several years, something happened that shook the conference to the core. “Julie” did not exist. “She” was, it turned out, a middle-aged male psychiatrist. Logging onto the conference for the first time, this man had accidentally begun a discussion with a woman who mistook him for another woman. “I was stunned,” he said later, “at the conversational mode. I hadn’t known that women talked among themselves that way. There was so much more vulnerability, so much more depth and complexity. Men’s conversations on the nets were much more guarded and superficial, even among intimates. It was fascinating, and I wanted more.” He had spent weeks developing the right persona. A totally disabled, single older woman was perfect. He felt that such a person wouldn’t be expected to have a social life. Consequently her existence only as a net persona would seem natural. It worked for years, until one of Julie’s devoted admirers, bent on finally meeting her in person, tracked her down.

The news reverberated through the net. Reactions varied from humorous resignation to blind rage. Most deeply affected were the women who had shared their innermost feelings with Julie. “I felt raped, ” one said. “I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated.” Several went so far as to repudiate the genuine gains they had made in their personal and emotional lives. They felt those gains were predicated on deceit and trickery.

Now, to me, this serves up the reason why identity in general is problematic on the web, and why it is particularly problematic when folks use pseudonyms. If it all stays online and if the participants in these conversations acknowledge the fluidity of identity in these spaces, then I don’t see any harm. But when it starts to cross into RL and/or the realm of the academic, well, then I see some potential problems.

How do we ever know if someone is authentic and real? Well, I suppose it’s always a crap-shoot until you’re right physically there, and even then it can be tough– this is why we wear nametags at conferences. But there’s a pretty good chance that I’m real, for example, because if you do a google search about me, you’ll find my name in other academic settings– listed as part of the EMU web sites, my name on other web sites, a publication here and there, a mention in some mailing lists, etc.

How do I know any of the folks who have been posting here with pseudonyms (like profgrrrl or bitchPhD, for example) are authentic and real? Well, I suppose in one sense in the same way, but it’s also pretty clear that both of these folks are writing as personas in a way that creates a certain separation between their pseudonym and their “real” selves.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as they might say on Seinfeld. But the tricky thing is when these things leak into each other, much in the same way that (I am just guessing) that an actor/comedian like Jerry Seinfeld is always having to re-explain to fans and such that he didn’t really hang around with those people in that New York apartment and have those wacky times.

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